Wiebe: Hugs all around in Columbus, a new Rookie of the Year challenger & other Week 23 thoughts

After Week 22, we featured the slugfest out West in the space below, a battle royale the Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle, who's kindly granted me this space while he cavorts around Catalina on vacation, dubbed MLS' "big fight."

But after a weekend in which LA and Colorado got shellacked by a combined score of 8-3 by Eastern Conference opponents, perhaps it's time to turn our gaze to the São Paulo-esque traffic jam in what general consensus – and head-to-head records – tells us is the weaker circuit.

That may be so, but with seven teams within seven points of each other and only 14 cross-conference clashes left, the ladder you see above is going get put through the ringer from now until October, even if the action isn't always easy on the eyes (looking at you Chicago and Montreal).

Sit back and enjoy, because while their regular-season performances might not match up to the talent-rich West, who's to say some plucky, on-form squad from the East won't come up trumps when it really matters in November and early December?

Here are a few things we saw in Week 23:


1. Gregg Berhalter's Wild Ride

"Wax on, wax off, Gregg-san."

I thought that was a marginally clever line, emphasis on marginally, considering Crew boss Gregg Berhalter was staring down his first head-to-head matchup with former boss and Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena (plus, it was paired with a GIF of Mr Miyagi catching a fly with chopsticks). I had a lot of thoughts about Saturday's Columbus-LA clash, and not one of them included the possibility that the home side would run out 4-1 victors.

After pulling out of a swan dive that lasted three-and-a-half months and included just one win following a flawless start that had people breathless about the future under Berhalter, the Crew are starting to show signs that they're better than that long malaise made them look. Of course, you'll pardon me if I wait to declare Columbus cured after what was probably their "best game of the year."

Yes, they still need a stud center forward (heck, just a consistent goalscoring threat and back-to-goal presence) to truly threaten Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United in the East, but all of a sudden Ethan Finlay (six goals, four assists and this stunner vs. LA) and Justin Meram (four, goals, three assists in just nine starts and owner of this GOTW candidate) are causing havoc in front of Federico Higuaín, and Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp are winning the battle in central midfield.

Slowly but surely, Columbus are climbing the playoff ladder and reestablishing some much-needed belief after three wins in five. Now they've just got to lock things down in back, where shutouts (last on June 29) have been in very short supply.

SIDENOTE: In what may turn out to be another subplot of Landon Donovan's final season – apart from jersey-swapping predictions, of course – the Crew and Berhalter pulled out all the stops with a ceremony fit for the undisputed king of US soccer. I'd write about it here, but I'm not going to waste my time with SI.com's Brian Straus already on the case.

Either way, standard Donovan logic (save your best for the biggest of stages or when personally challenged) followed that Saturday would the time to break his regular-season duck at the stadium where he's experienced success on so many other levels.

It certainly helps Akindele that he's got MLS' most terrifying open-field player in Fabián Castillo on the opposite flank, and the two combined for five goals and an assist against the shell-shocked Quakes, with the Colombian sensation driving at the defense with the ball and Akindele cleaning up in the box. Castillo, by the way, promised Pareja 12 goals this season. He's got eight despite missing considerable time because of suspension. Anyone else wish the US could somehow sneak him into the player pool?

Without a healthy and productive Mauro Díaz, who remains in a holding pattern after that long injury layoff, Dallas aren't trying to fool anyone right now. You can have the ball. You can take some space. You'll just leave room on the break for Akindele and Castillo to tear you apart (and Andrés Escobar, too). And did I mention that Blas Pérez didn't even start this game? That's downright scary.

Don't look now, but FC Dallas are unbeaten in nine (five wins) in the regular season and boast the most explosive attack in MLS. Go ahead and carve out time now for Friday night's clash with Real Salt Lake (8 pm ET, NBCSN).

3. Goalkeeper controversy? What goalkeeper controversy?

Turns out that depth-chart battle between the posts in Philly is three deep.

We got our first regular-season look at No. 1-overall SuperDraft pick Andre Blake this weekend against Houston in a 2-0 loss, and the Jamaican certainly didn't disappoint. He also flailed on a couple crosses and had a few misadventures, but frankly that's par for the course in your first league start.

Blake also did things like this, launching a split-second counterattack with a 75-yard laser-guided drop kick that Sébastien Le Toux couldn't quite finish off. If there's another goalkeeper in MLS (hell, name the league) that can do what he did below, I haven't seen him or I'm just not looking hard enough.

Then there were moments that made Union fans want to swallow their tongue. Moments that Blake will grow out of with a little experience (and maybe a mistake or two to reinforce the lesson). Moments that Philly may not have the patience for after going through the same process with Zac MacMath.

Espíndola scored one in D.C. United's 4-2 romp over the Rapids, his first start since June 11, but former RSL man could have had a handful in a shift that started slow but got better and better as time went on. Considering his MVP-caliber form pre-injury and -suspension, no defender will be looking forward to matching up with D.C. (EJ, Rolfe, Silva, DeLeon … Pontius, if only) as they look to shore up their MLS Cup credentials (winners of five of seven) and push on to the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage during the next three months.

Next up, similarly rampant Sporting KC with first place in the Eastern Conference's at stake (Saturday at 8:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE).

4. Meanwhile, in the Squarely in the Running for Goal Of the Year category, the Rapids' Homegrown midfielder Dillon Serna did this:

3. The Armchair Analyst labelled the Whitecaps a one-trick pony last week – both complimentary and warily – and then the pony got left in the stable in a scoreless draw on the road at Chivas USA, a game that could have opened a four-point gap between Vancouver and their two closest challengers.

That pony is the counterattack, except Pedro Morales wasn't around to man the reins this time around, to the chagrin of my MLS Fantasy team, until nil-nil took on a real air of inevitability (22 minutes played, eight passes completed and three shots from no-man's land).

Chivas USA did what they had to do, only Cubo didn't make Vancouver pay. Wilmer Cabrera refused to give Darren Mattocks, Omar Salgado, Russell Teibert and, eventually, Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado open field to work with, inviting the 'Caps to bomb away from distance (below are Chivas USA's clearances, blocks, interceptions and tackles, almost all clustered in and around the final third).

Most teams, especially at home, will come out to play a bit more (408 passes for Vancouver to Chivas' 299), but head coach Carl Robinson is going to have to tease another means of attack out of this young group if they're to challenge in the West. That and hope Morales steers clearl of fatigue, injury and suspension for three-plus months.

2. Speaking of Morales, Javi was out (hip), and Luis Gil was in at the top of the diamond against Seattle, the team everyone assumed would run away with the Supporters' Shield post-World Cup before they lost four of six, including the weekend's marquee matchup in Sandy sans the suspended Obafemi Martins.

Gil spent most of his day in the Sounders half, connecting with his teammates on both wings as Real Salt Lake dominated possession (58 percent). And while it wasn't a particularly massive day from a chance-creation standpoint (three key passes and little activity in Zone 14), the kind of ball you see below reinforces why he'll be a centerpiece of the United States U-23s come 2016 in Rio.

1. The own goal is nothing if not cruel, and Union right back Ray Gaddis suffered some undeserved misery this week after Omar Cummings' driven cross took a 90-degree deflection off his foot, tucking itself in the corner of Blake's net from the edge of the 18-yard box to make it 2-0 Dynamo in the 90th minute.

That's about as unlucky as it gets for Gaddis – who really is having a wonderful season in just his second as a starter (third as a pro) in Philly – but that doesn't make him exempt from Face of the Week infamy (you're encouraged to tweet other nominations to me).

Finally, lest ye forget what Giles Barnes did to Djimi Traoré last week, this undressing of Fábinho is how we'll end things for Week 23, with plenty left unsaid but surely floating around out there for you to find.

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